Suggestions For A Computing Plank In The Green Party’s Platform
- use of small inexpensive computers,
- thin clients,
- ARM technology, and
- Free Software.
Any organization using most of these recommendations will reduce the “Digital Divide”, energy consumption throughout the life-cycle of a computer, and minimize electronic waste. For example, an Android smart phone can be sold for as little as $100, provide most of the features some users need, consume 1% of the electrical power of a “PC” in use, and contribute only 1% of the e-waste on disposal. That is possible because of the advances in electronics made in the last decade, use of Free Software with no expensive licence and no built-in obsolescence. Even a conventional “PC” can have its life extended by a factor of two using Free Software cutting e-waste in half. The thin client technology is old technology brought up to date. One extends the life of a computer by using a small computer with no fans or drives or using an old conventional “PC” to show the pictures and send the clicks to and from a new powerful PC or server. That way multiple users get the use of the powerful machine while using much less energy and material.
Many people treat computers like small appliances and do not give them any special consideration when it comes to environmental matters. Computers have several issues which make them much more of a burden to the environment than most other small appliances.
- Most computers in use in the world use the Microsoft Windows operating system and an Intel or AMD CPU chip. Microsoft makes most of its money from Windows PCs by selling the manufacturer a licence that costs about $50. That licence is an OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) licence which lives and dies with the computer. It is in Microsoft’s interest that a PC slows down and dies far sooner than necessary so that a new one will be bought in as little as 3 years. Microsoft does that by constantly supplying “updates” which supposedly make the machine more secure, immune to malware and bug-free. It also has the desirable side effect that the computer ends up running more and more processes as it is used and it becomes slower with use to the point that the user will try to have it fixed at great expense or discard the old one and buy a new one. Intel and AMD also benefit from this activity by selling ever more powerful CPU chips to make the new PC run faster than the old. One can install GNU/Linux on an old PC and see that it will run twice as fast and not slow down with use to see that this slowing down is quite unnecessary. The result is that a person blindly using Wintel PCs will discard the PC every 3 to 5 years while a person using GNU/Linux can enjoy his PC at least 8 years or until the moving parts need replacement. In addition to this deliberate slowing of a PC, Microsoft also produces an operating system that is very fragile and prone to being invaded by viruses and other malware. These intruders rob the user of his computer resources often making the machines seem slower. In addition some malware sabotages the computer or steals valuable information greatly reducing one’s quality of life. The cost of removing malware periodically from a PC is unknown with GNU/Linux because the operating system is designed as a true multiuser system and security is built in. Windows was conceived as a single user system from the beginning and had no intrinsic security until XP SP2. The solution to the problem of a slow computer in any event is not to discard it but to give it minimal work to do, showing pictures and sending clicks something that 10 year old computers can do well. That’s how thin clients work.
- On top of these totally controllable features of computers, they are much more complicated than most appliances and contain large amounts of quite toxic materials including heavy metals and plastics. While manufacturing a PC can be quite inexpensive, it is very expensive to recycle the intricate parts reliably. Much of it becomes landfill.
- A computer uses a surprising amount of energy to manufacture and to ship to customers and then uses electrical power throughout its life. Worse, most of the power a computer consumes is wasted and converted to heat. In winter, this can be used to heat a building but in summer may make a living space uncomfortable and require additional air-cooling. The typical desktop PC uses more than 100 watts of power for the case and 30 watts for the monitor. Notebook PCs use less, perhaps 50 watts, because they need to run from a battery. In most cases the CPU in the PC is idling all day long. Even when a person is using a PC the work a CPU does is controlled more by the user and the storage devices than the CPU so it idles and runs in short bursts to do tasks. This can be studied using monitoring software or by running multiple users simultaneously on a PC. With Windows that is rarely done but GNU/Linux can run 30 users comfortably all at the same time on a typical desktop PC with enough memory. The faster the CPU one has, the more power it uses and the more it wastes idling, much like a huge engine in a car. By various tricks one can slow down a CPU when it is not busy but one still has the larger environmental costs and the purchase price of a larger than necessary CPU. The CPU power a user actually needs to do most tasks is more like the tiny ARM CPU in a smart phone costing $30 and using 1 watt rather than the hair-drying 64bit quad-core CPU from Intel using 100 watts and costing $100 (and more for the larger power supply). A modern thin client uses a low-powered CPU like that in a smart phone to show pictures and receive clicks for a faster, more powerful computer. The total energy consumption can be very low. Just counting CPU power, 30 “PC”s might use 30 x 100 watts = 3KW, enough to heat a small home. 30 thin clients might use 30 x 1 watt for the clients and 100 watts for the powerful PC coming to a total of 130 watts, about 30 times less power. Thin clients, being fanless can easily last 10 years, further multiplying the energy saving to about 60 times less energy consumption over the lifetime. A typical PC might cost $300 to buy and a thin client $50, compounding the savings.
The standard objections to changing the way computers are being used hinge on falsehoods:
- small cheap computers are slower – This is not necessarily true. A thin client actually has very little work to do and is idling a lot. It’s server can be a very powerful machine with extra memory and storage being actually faster than a typical PC. In the school where I worked last year. We had some brand new PCs come in that students felt were terribly slow. The reason? They were used to 8 year old PCs used as thin clients which could log them into the server in 5s and load the word-processor application in less than 2s. The new PCs were twice as slow because they had to peel the software from the hardrive for every click whereas the server had multiple users already running applications in memory and the same software needed only one copy
in memory to satisfy many users. It’s a magical improvement in performance until you understand how it works. Any place with multiple users can benefit from this technology even a home with two users. In schools and offices it is incredibly efficient. The computer person has only one computer to maintain instead of many because the thin clients are as reliable as telephones and just keep humming. If you have GNU/Linux on that server, the fix-it person does not even need to maintain anti-malware software, another thing that makes “PC”s slower.
- small cheap computers rely on servers to work and that’s a single point of failure – Not necessarily relevant. Google is a single point of failure but is more reliable than many PCs. The reason is that Google runs GNU/Linux on its servers and they use clusters of servers so that if one fails the others take over instantly. Any school or business can arrange the same automatic fail-over strategy just for the cost of one more machine. The network is often copper wire which lasts 25 years or so. Network switches that fail can be replaced in minutes. The typical “PC” running Windows has a huge failure annually and a bunch of smaller ones. They are usable about 99% of the time. The typical “PC” running GNU/Linux is usable about 99.9% of the time because of the better design of its software. By using a pair of machines to be a cluster of terminal servers, one can get 99.9999% reliability with GNU/Linux and 99.99% reliability with Windows. Use GNU/Linux. One of the major failures of Windows is malware. The “bad guys” who make malware produce more than 1000 new malwares every day and Microsoft gives them a head-start. Every month, Microsoft releases updates to fix serious vulnerabilities in their software, at a time convenient in their timezone. The result is that if the update arrives in the middle of your workday you cannot apply the updates immediately. The “bad guys” can analyze the changes and design malware to exploit the vulnerability in a few hours and send it to you in an e-mail or a website that you visit. Then you have no protection and later if the malware has done no harm you can remove it in a few days when the anti-malware industry catches up. The result is that you are almost certain to have malware on your PCs and you often have to reboot to do the updates and take care of the malware. That reduces the reliability of Windows.
- small cheap computers actually cost more – Even Microsoft says that and it’s a lie designed to suppress competing technology.
The licence for Free Software usually costs $0. It is provided with the software as a free download. It’s easier to maintain than Windows because a programme called a package manager can update, install or remove all the software on your PC when you run GNU/Linux. Microsoft updates its own software but the user has to individually update all non-Microsoft applications. Schools that have adopted GNU/Linux find they can triple the number of PCs in the system without hiring any additional staff because GNU/Linux is so easy to maintain. Microsoft makes its false claim by comparing their prices with the prices of the companies that include the price of maintenance in a subscription fee, confusing the consumer with apples versus oranges comparison. Microsoft’s licence costs a consumer $100 or more and GNU/Linux costs $0. You can find people who will charge you $1000 a year to maintain your PC but would you do business with them? No. You would find someone more reasonable or do it yourself. I have installed GNU/Linux machines that run for years with no maintenance required. Microsoft has arranged with OEMs to hide the price of their licence in the purchase price for PCs so consumers cannot make this comparison. With a little digging you can plainly see identical systems cost more with Windows: http://alturl.com/m4iqz
While it is fairly easy to set up a demonstration of better technology, it can be complicated by resources: space, equipment, test subjects, etc. The web, on the other hand, is full of examples with video:
- Home Education Festival Dorset, UK, 2005 demonstrated a tent of old notebook PCs used as thin clients. One machine kept a room full of children happy.
- Setting up any PC to boot thin clients over the network so they don’t even need a hard drive.
- A new modern small cheap thin client computer with an ARM CPU is demonstrated at
Free Software is an important concept in the use of IT in our society. Our society depends upon computers and software but members of our society are sufficiently capable of developing software that works well. By sharing that software the world does need not be limited by the fiscal plans of corporations making money from restricting how we use IT. Ideally Free Software carries with it four permissions:
- Permission to run the software,
- Permission to examine the code of the software to know how it works and what it does in detail,
- Permission to modify the software to improve it or customize it for some purpose, and
- Permission to distribute the software and the requirement to distribute any modifications.
This structure was created by Richard Stallman who created the Free Software movement decades ago. He set out to create a complete set of software to make computers useful with few restrictions. By 1990, the GNU organization had a complete environment for a UNIX type of operating system except for the management of local resources. Linus Torvalds started the Linux project that by 1993 provided the last component. Today hundreds of GNU/Linux distributions of software meet every need of a hundred million users. The flexibility of this licensing makes it ideal to preserve the environment and to maximize benefits of IT to people.
The value proposition for GNU/Linux is amazing. For $0 (the price of a download) anyone can install Free Software on a PC and be free of malware, slowing down, licensing fees and restrictions on use and copying. This seems unnatural in the commercial world but it is not. It is an example of sharing, something that evey individual, family and organization does. It’s what makes us human. Some question the stability of a system based on Free Software but it is very robust. People, particularly young people love Free Software because it is a great aid in learning to program computers to see the work of experts. Since no licences need to be purchased, Free Software helps schools provide more software to students for all kinds of purposes far beyond word-processing: databases, web servers, file servers, and team-building activities, all which are expensive add-ons using Windows. The Debian GNU/Linux distro at http://www.debian.org/ is the largest distro in terms of contributors. It has 25000 software packages being shared by people and organizations from around the world. This represents $billions worth of software and it’s all designed to work optimally for the user and not the supplier.
It’s not just about money or performance. It’s about every aspect of our society involved with IT. Free Software is consistent with the values of the Green Party. The very concept of sovereign government is threatened by global monopoly in IT. Several governments have embraced Free Software as an important plank in their platforms reaching for local control and local benefit from IT. Brazil, Venezuela, Paraguay, Russia, China, India, Malaysia, Cuba and others have all embraced Free Software for good reason. Many other countries include Free Software as an important tool: France, Germany, and Spain are prominent. In Canada several school divisions use GNU/Linux with great results. It is ideal to promote local production of IT rather than simply being consumers of IT. The Green Party should embrace Free Software.
Not only should the Green Party promote Free Software, but the Green Party should push for an end to monopoly by Microsoft and Intel on retail shelves. That monopoly was created by exclusive deals initially between IBM and Microsoft but then extended to manufacturers to build only Windows computers and finally to retailers to sell only Windows computers. Monopoly is never the best option in commerce. The world can make its own IT better than a single corporation. Ironically, Microsoft pushed IBM out of the PC business by squeezing value for Microsoft alone and now IBM is one of the biggest promoters of GNU/Linux in large businesses. They realized they created a monster and did something about it. The Green Party should see Microsoft for what it is and embrace Free Software in the best interests of Canadians to be free to use IT any way Canadians want. In particular, Canadians should be able to buy small cheap computers and they do when they are offered. Remember the netbook? Retailers were not able to keep GNU/Linux netbooks on the shelves until Microsoft forced manufacturers to install Windows XP on them. Now very few netbooks are sold. Microsoft killed a viable affordable form of IT suitable for many in our society and made it unavailable. That is unacceptable and the Green Party should stand up for the freedom to use the best technology for the job. Android/Linux is Free Software used on smart phones and tablets. More than 50% of smart phones use it and it is found on retail shelves. Microsoft’s system is on a few percent of smart phones because consumers don’t want it and the makers of smart phones are mostly not Microsoft’s partners in monopoly. There is no technical reason to shy away from Free Software and many valid reasons to embrace it.